Bryn Freedman: You're a guy whose company funds these AI programs and invests. So why should we trust you to not have a bias and tell us something really useful for the rest of us about the future of work?
Roy Bahat: Yes, I am. And when you wake up in the morning and you read the newspaper and it says, "The robots are coming, they may take all our jobs," as a start-up investor focused on the future of work, our fund was the first one to say artificial intelligence should be a focus for us.
So I woke up one morning and read that and said, "Oh, my gosh, they're talking about me. That's me who's doing that." And then I thought: wait a minute. If things continue, then maybe not only will the start-ups in which we invest struggle because there won't be people to have jobs to pay for the things that they make and buy them, but our economy and society might struggle, too.
And look, I should be the guy who sits here and tells you, "Everything is going to be fine. It's all going to work out great. Hey, when they introduced the ATM machine, years later, there's more tellers in banks." It's true. And yet, when I looked at it, I thought, "This is going to accelerate. And if it does accelerate, there's a chance the center doesn't hold." But I figured somebody must know the answer to this; there are so many ideas out there. And I read all the books, and I went to the conferences, and at one point, we counted more than 100 efforts to study the future of work. And it was a frustrating experience, because I'd hear the same back-and-forth over and over again: "The robots are coming!" And then somebody else would say, "Oh, don't worry about that, they've always said that and it turns out OK." Then somebody else would say, "Well, it's really about the meaning of your job, anyway." And then everybody would shrug and go off and have a drink. And it felt like there was this Kabuki theater of this discussion, where nobody was talking to each other.
And many of the people that I knew and worked with in the technology world were not speaking to policy makers; the policy makers were not speaking to them. And so we partnered with a nonpartisan think tank NGO called New America to study this issue. And we brought together a group of people, including an AI czar at a technology company and a video game designer and a heartland conservative and a Wall Street investor and a socialist magazine editor — literally, all in the same room; it was occasionally awkward — to try to figure out what is it that will happen here.
The question we asked was simple. It was: What is the effect of technology on work going to be? And we looked out 10 to 20 years, because we wanted to look out far enough that there could be real change, but soon enough that we weren't talking about teleportation or anything like that. And we recognized — and I think every year we're reminded of this in the world — that predicting what's going to happen is hard. So instead of predicting, there are other things you can do. You can try to imagine alternate possible futures, which is what we did. We did a scenario-planning exercise, and we imagined cases where no job is safe. We imagined cases where every job is safe. And we imagined every distinct possibility we could.
And the result, which really surprised us, was when you think through those futures and you think what should we do, the answers about what we should do actually turn out to be the same, no matter what happens. And the irony of looking out 10 to 20 years into the future is, you realize that the things we want to act on are actually already happening right now. The automation is right now, the future is right now.
BF: So what does that mean, and what does that tell us? If the future is now, what is it that we should be doing, and what should we be thinking about?
RB: We have to understand the problem first. And so the data are that as the economy becomes more productive and individual workers become more productive, their wages haven't risen. If you look at the proportion of prime working-age men, in the United States at least, who work now versus in 1960, we have three times as many men not working. And then you hear the stories.
I sat down with a group of Walmart workers and said, "What do you think about this cashier, this futuristic self-checkout thing?" They said, "That's nice, but have you heard about the cash recycler? That's a machine that's being installed right now, and is eliminating two jobs at every Walmart right now." And so we just thought, "Geez. We don't understand the problem." And so we looked at the voices that were the ones that were excluded, which is all of the people affected by this change. And we decided to listen to them, sort of "automation and its discontents."
And I've spent the last couple of years doing that. I've been to Flint, Michigan, and Youngstown, Ohio, talking about entrepreneurs, trying to make it work in a very different environment from New York or San Francisco or London or Tokyo. I've been to prisons twice to talk to inmates about their jobs after they leave. I've sat down with truck drivers to ask them about the self-driving truck, with people who, in addition to their full-time job, care for an aging relative. And when you talk to people, there were two themes that came out loud and clear.
The first one was that people are less looking for more money or get out of the fear of the robot taking their job, and they just want something stable. They want something predictable. So if you survey people and ask them what they want out of work, for everybody who makes less than 150,000 dollars a year, they'll take a more stable and secure income, on average, over earning more money. And if you think about the fact that not only for all of the people across the earth who don't earn a living, but for those who do, the vast majority earn a different amount from month to month and have an instability, all of a sudden you realize, "Wait a minute. We have a real problem on our hands."
And the second thing they say, which took us a longer time to understand, is they say they want dignity. And that concept of self-worth through work emerged again and again and again in our conversations.
BF: So, I certainly appreciate this answer. But you can't eat dignity, you can't clothe your children with self-esteem. So, what is that, how do you reconcile — what does dignity mean, and what is the relationship between dignity and stability?
RB: You can't eat dignity. You need stability first. And the good news is, many of the conversations that are happening right now are about how we solve that. You know, I'm a proponent of studying guaranteed income, as one example, conversations about how health care gets provided and other benefits. Those conversations are happening, and we're at a time where we must figure that out. It is the crisis of our era.
And my point of view after talking to people is that we may do that, and it still might not be enough. Because what we need to do from the beginning is understand what is it about work that gives people dignity, so they can live the lives that they want to live. And so that concept of dignity is ... it's difficult to get your hands around, because when many people hear it — especially, to be honest, rich people — they hear "meaning." They hear "My work is important to me." And again, if you survey people and you ask them, "How important is it to you that your work be important to you?" only people who make 150,000 dollars a year or more say that it is important to them that their work be important.
BF: Meaning, meaningful?
RB: Just defined as, "Is your work important to you?" Whatever somebody took that to mean. And yet, of course dignity is essential. We talked to truck drivers who said, "I saw my cousin drive, and I got on the open road and it was amazing. And I started making more money than people who went to college." Then they'd get to the end of their thought and say something like, "People need their fruits and vegetables in the morning, and I'm the guy who gets it to them."
We talked to somebody who, in addition to his job, was caring for his aunt. He was making plenty of money. At one point we just asked, "What is it about caring for your aunt? Can't you just pay somebody to do it?" He said, "My aunt doesn't want somebody we pay for. My aunt wants me." So there was this concept there of being needed.
If you study the word "dignity," it's fascinating. It's one of the oldest words in the English language, from antiquity. And it has two meanings: one is self-worth, and the other is that something is suitable, it's fitting, meaning that you're part of something greater than yourself, and it connects to some broader whole. In other words, that you're needed.
BF: So how do you answer this question, this concept that we don't pay teachers, and we don't pay eldercare workers, and we don't pay people who really care for people and are needed, enough?
RB: Well, the good news is, people are finally asking the question. So as AI investors, we often get phone calls from foundations or CEOs and boardrooms saying, "What do we do about this?" And they used to be asking, "What do we do about introducing automation?" And now they're asking, "What do we do about self-worth?" And they know that the employees who work for them who have a spouse who cares for somebody, that dignity is essential to their ability to just do their job.
I think there's two kinds of answers: there's the money side of just making your life work. That's stability. You need to eat. And then you think about our culture more broadly, and you ask: Who do we make into heroes? And, you know, what I want is to see the magazine cover that is the person who is the heroic caregiver. Or the Netflix series that dramatizes the person who makes all of our other lives work so we can do the things we do. Let's make heroes out of those people. That's the Netflix show that I would binge.
And we've had chroniclers of this before — Studs Terkel, the oral history of the working experience in the United States. And what we need is the experience of needing one another and being connected to each other. Maybe that's the answer for how we all fit as a society. And the thought exercise, to me, is: if you were to go back 100 years and have people — my grandparents, great-grandparents, a tailor, worked in a mine — they look at what all of us do for a living and say, "That's not work." We sit there and type and talk, and there's no danger of getting hurt. And my guess is that if you were to imagine 100 years from now, we'll still be doing things for each other. We'll still need one another. And we just will think of it as work.
The entire thing I'm trying to say is that dignity should not just be about having a job. Because if you say you need a job to have dignity, which many people say, the second you say that, you say to all the parents and all the teachers and all the caregivers that all of a sudden, because they're not being paid for what they're doing, it somehow lacks this essential human quality. To me, that's the great puzzle of our time: Can we figure out how to provide that stability throughout life, and then can we figure out how to create an inclusive, not just racially, gender, but multigenerationally inclusive — I mean, every different human experience included — in this way of understanding how we can be needed by one another.
BF: Thank you. RB: Thank you.
BF: Thank you very much for your participation.